Kearney, NE March 4. Saturday
We stumbled through the dark at 5:15 AM, trying not to trip on the person ahead of us. 18 of us, bundled up, hoping to see, and hear, large numbers of sandhill cranes. Most people were in dark jackets which would have been great if they were trying to be a cat burglar. But as they blended in to the early morning gloom, it was difficult to see them. Our destination was a blind, a wooden structure with windows overlooking the largest roost of sandhill cranes along the Platte River. We parked our cars about a block away. We were told it was critical to be quiet and to not use cell phones for calling or lighting the way. Our leader had a small, red colored flashlight to slightly show the way. But towards the back of the line, the red light of the guide only indicated in a general sense where we were headed.
Morning video at Crane Trust
We made it to the blind without any major incidents and sat down, after fumbling around in the dark to find the benches. Now the waiting began, until enough light appeared to see the cranes. We heard them first, a cacophony of bird calls that increased and decreased spasmodically. Besides the cranes, we could hear ducks and song bird type calls. The sound level increased as the light increased. Eventually there was enough pre-dawn light to begin taking photos. I waited to shoot until at least two other people began taking photos; I did not want to be the first and then discover I made some noise that would alert the cranes to our presence.
My first photo was taken at 6:20 AM and the last at 7:25. The light was colorful but still not enough to do a good panoramic shot showing the full roost. Most of the birds were still, not a lot of preening and dancing. Around 7 AM, birds started flying around, not necessarily leaving the roost to feed but just flying around the river. Chris and I took turns with the camera and the iPhone. Some people had their 35 mm cameras with zoom lenses; you will not see those close-up shots from what we have.
It was a great experience. The Crane Trust says about 200,000 cranes are in the area at the current time. As we returned to our hotel, a 30 minute drive from the Crane Trust offices, we started seeing flocks of cranes, from 5 to maybe 100 birds in a group, flying from the river area and landing in fields along I-80 to feed. Heck, they woke up hours after we did and got to have breakfast well before we did. Not fair.
We returned to the blind for the evening, sunset crane watch. We had signed up (in early January) for both sunrise and sunset out of concern that the weather would not be conducive for at least one of them. Frankly I was concerned that both of them would wash out, either due to weather or lack of birds. The sunset crane watch was even more spectacular than the sunrise.
Sunrise was about 30 degrees and we had to wait an hour before we saw anything. Sunset temperature ranged between 71 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit, some birds were already present, and at the end, a huge throng of cranes roost less than 150 feet from the blind. There were more people, but not enough more to degrade the experience. Since we already had pictures, we could relax a bit more and enjoy just watching and listening.
The blind faces roughly southeast and the Platte River runs from the right (west) to the left (east). The sandhill cranes seemed to return primarily on a route that brought them in along the course of the river, they gathered in the air at a spot to our left front-but still a distance away, then seemed to congregate on land or a sandbar in a combined slow glide, helicopter fashion. Groups of 5 to 100 would mesh into this big group, circle around a bit-sort of like a whirlpool or eddy, and then slowly drop down. Every now and then a small group would come across land. This group would head to the west, get towards the end of a larger group, and make a slow turn similar to a cloverleaf exit ramp to a highway, and then become part of the larger river group. It was fascinating.
We had to use binoculars to watch individual cranes. Our cameras were not powerful enough to shoot images as the cranes landed and roost across the river. As the afternoon faded, more and more groups kept arriving. The sound of their calls kept increasing. As the light was almost gone, a large flock, maybe several thousand, started landing on a sandbar less than 150 feet in front of us. Our guide later said he had never seen them come this close to the blind before. You could hear the camera shutters click away constantly. Unfortunately, one of our group had a flash go off and 95% of the cranes rose almost instantaneously and flew off. (Using a flash in a big no-no. I even had electrical tape over my flash to make sure it stayed off.) Over the next 10-15 minutes, some of them returned but most were circling around trying to decide if they were returning or roosting somewhere else. We left shortly afterward since it was too dark to see and certainly too dark to shoot photos.
This was a once in a lifetime experience. We are glad we decided to go and lucky that the weather and birds cooperated. The migration here is of critical importance. The picture demonstrates the migration pattern of not only sandhill cranes, but whooping cranes, Monarch butterflies, and numerous other migratory birds and waterfowl. For the sandhill cranes, this is a stopping point where they eat and add 15-20% of their body weight. Without this stop, they would not have enough food and energy to make it to their summer breeding grounds.
Evening video at Crane Trust
However, the addition of over 20 dams along the Platte has reduced its volume by 80% and changed its hydraulics so that it no longer scours the shore. The dams provide for recreation, irrigation and drinking water, and hydro power. The impact for the birds is dramatic. THe picture below demonstrates the migration path and how it narrows here at the Platte River. If this one small, pinch point becomes eliminated, the migration path is destroyed.
The pinch point is only about 20 miles wide. Every Monday, a plane flies between Odessa and Overton Nebraska. One man in the plane is responsible for counting the number of cranes in the area covered by his fist, then he counts the number of fists that it takes to cover the sea of cranes below. This provides the first rough estimate. The more detailed count is provided by a person manually counting the cranes seen in the pictures taken by cameras in the plane as it flies along the river. Not a job I would want.
The Crane Trust was established to use human means to keep the Platte providing suitable habitat in this region. Environmental groups had sued when the Greylocks Dam was proposed on a tributary of the Platte. The judge allowed the dam but mandated the establishment of the trust to mitigate the dam’s impact.
Our day had other activites. We decided to make this fantastic crane adventure be part 1. We will complete a part 2 later of the other activities.
Ed and Chris. March 3 Saturday in Kearney NE